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Sport: The Wild-Goose Man

5 minute read

The fluty call of a curlew heralds the first light of dawn. A faraway widgeon whistles to its companions. A rid off in the dark shallows, a flock of shelduck guffaw at one another like wee-hour carousers wending their way home. MacKenzie Thorpe is in his natural habitat. He is guiding three “guns” across the desolate marshlands of Lincolnshire on England’s east coast. Bowlegged and bearded, he creeps through the high grass like some hungry predator, his burly hulk seemingly impervious to the chill wind knifing off the North Sea. Climbing a creek bank, one of the hunters stumbles. “Watch yer don’t jam yer moozle in the mood,” warns Thorpe. In the lifting darkness, the hunters flush a pair of teal. Thorpe takes no notice. His quarry is not duck but the prized pink-footed goose. Positioning the hunters along a flyway, Thorpe raises his nose and sniffs the wind. His squinty blue eyes search the horizon. Then, lifting his face to the gray sky, he emits a series of harsh, high-pitched cries: “Ung-unk! Ung-unk! Ung-unk!”

MacKenzie Thorpe has been stalking through the Lincolnshire marshes for most of his 62 years. Hunter, guide, marsh warden, bird advisory officer, conservationist, naturalist and lecturer, he is a legendary figure in British wildlife circles. He is called Kenzie the Wild-Goose Man. He is also the Owl Man, the Weasel Man, the Finch Man−a caller of the wild who can lure a hare from its hole or a baby seal onto the beach. Thorpe can mimic 88 different bird calls, ranging from the swallow’s high titter to the low cluck of the red-legged partridge and the sexy whistle of the gray plover.

His sternest test comes each winter when the great pinkfeet migrate from Iceland to roost in the wheat and potato fields of Lincolnshire. Considered Britain’s ranking expert on wild geese, Thorpe has banded the pinkfoot for conservation, painted it on canvas, filmed it, shot 3,800 himself and instructed countless other guns−from the Queen Mother’s private secretary to Actor Richard Todd−on the wily ways of “the loveliest bird that flies.” The call of the pinkfoot, says Thorpe, is the most difficult to imitate. By recording the geese’s ringing ung-unk on tape, he learned to distinguish between the gander’s imperious high bark and the lower cry of the female. Out on the marshes he does both, relying on “sturdy vocal cords and plenty of cover.”

Seven for Eight. The Wild-Goose Man knows all about cover. Until a few years ago he held another unofficial title: prince of the poachers. Son of a gypsy father who migrated south from Yorkshire, Thorpe was raised in Sutton Bridge, a marsh village of flight netters and punt gunners who thrived on wild-fowling. His grandmother, a formidable woman named Leviathan, was famed for her skill at pouncing on nesting pheasants and sweeping up both birds and eggs in her petticoats. After graduating from slingshot to birdshot, Thorpe began poaching in earnest at the age of 13. “I had a stolen gun and stolen cartridges,” he recalls, “and the first time I fired it, I got seven hares for eight shots.”

Turning professional at 20, he eluded capture for over a decade by studying the gamekeepers−their habits, their movements, their hours spent in the pubs−as closely as he did the geese. From this intelligence he formed a kind of primer for poachers: “Know your ground, your ditches, your roadways on which a car can approach in the evenings without its headlights on. Never go to the same place twice running. The keeper will find your footprints, and the next night he’ll be waiting for you.” For all his precautions, Thorpe found the law waiting on more than one occasion. Once he escaped by hastily loading 25 geese onto an abandoned railway flatcar and pumping it down the tracks to safety. Other times he resorted to force, and as the middleweight boxing champion of Lincolnshire in his youth, he was a mean man to reckon with. Once when a warden caught him by surprise, Thorpe scored an easy K.O. with three straight lefts to the jaw−and landed in jail for three straight months for assault.

Still, in all his 40 years of poaching Thorpe was fined a total of only $360 and had “four good guns” confiscated−a small penalty, he figures, compared with the yearly bag records he keeps in a blue notebook. In 1942, his best year, he took 48 pheasant, 72 partridge, 68 hare, 1 woodcock, 106 geese, 146 mallard, 231 widgeon, 193 shelduck, 2 shoveler, 1 tufted duck, 61 plover, 18 pigeon, 79 redshank, 50 knot, 40 curlew, 1 reeve, 1 gadwall, 1 pintail, 1 black-tailed godwit, 2 whimbrel and 6 rabbit. In the early 1960s, the invasion of the marshes by wildfowling clubs convinced Thorpe that the bountiful days were forever gone. Complaining that “the marsh is a regular shooting gallery,” he went straight in 1963 and has since become, among other things, the man responsible for tracking down poachers in Lincolnshire−a job he performs with uncommon speed and skill.

“I’ve been a wicked ol’ man,” confesses Thorpe. “But one thing I’ve never done is rob anyone of money.” Money, he says, was never his aim. “It was the sheer thrill of moving in and out of the trees and bushes, the excitement of never knowin’ what might happen next to you. You get a lovely eastern sky at dawn and the geese comin’ in toward you−it’s a picture some people never see in their entire lives. If I had my time over again, I wouldn’t do any different.” Then after a pause, he adds: “Except I’d be a lot more cunning.”

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